Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Building Castles on the Sand

Writing a PhD thesis, I have come to find, is a lot like building a castle on sand. Not, "castles made of sand," like the Jimi Hendrix song, but actually building a stronghold structure on sand. A castle's purpose is to withstand sieges from outside forces, to stand up to a raging army that wants to pillage the land. This is similar to my thesis, which needs to withstand a barrage of questions from examiners, both internally and externally.

Good castles, as evidenced by those still standing, are built on a solid foundation: a hillside of stone, somewhere high that allows for an excellent vantage point of the surrounding areas, close enough to the shore to disrupt water-based attacks, but far enough away to avoid water-based attacks, etc. No structures that are meant to be lasting are ever built on sand because, as a foundation, it is constantly in flux, constantly shifting. Stand on the beach for any given time and one will find oneself sinking. When trying to lean on sand, it moves away.

This is why no one builds houses or castles on sand: the foundation needs to be constant, unmoving.

My thesis should be built on a strong theoretical foundation, something that can be used as a defense against the rabid hordes of examiners at the gate. Unfortunately, the more I read, the less sure, the more shaky, my foundation seems. My argument, then, begins to fall apart, cracks form in the walls, the roof starts to slant, rain gets in, and so on.

Couple this issue with the sheer amount of time between beginning and ending, and further instability starts to form. Certainly, as I am working now, my theory might hold water, but with the mass of criticism constantly published, the vessel that carries my ideas might have holes poked into it, allowing for my argument to leak out the side, leaving behind a dessicated, empty shell, full of holes. And, of course, my own ideas develop over time, refining and changing the original ideas.

I have found at this point, with my topic shifted innumerable already, that I have begun to patch the holes and cracks. I just hope that by the end of this process, my structure looks like a mighty, impregnable castle, and not like a patchwork lean-to held together by Spackle and duct-tape.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Case for Russian Formalism

The Russian Formalist school of criticism has, for several decades now, been greatly discredited. There is good reason for this: at their worst, they totally ignored the role that the reader, society and history played, making claims, as Vladamir Propp made about fairy tales, that there is no difference between novels other than their use of the device.

Clearly, this is problematic. What differences there are stems from the culture that surrounds the work. It would be impossible to claim that the work is completely divorced from the place where it came.

That said, the claim that device (the form used, the structure of the work) and materials (the words and content) are inseparable when searching for meaning is not a baby that should be thrown out with the more asinine bathwater. There is something valuable to examining the device used.

An anology might help here: image that the material (the ideas) of an artists are people, and that the device (the structure of the work) is a building. Once the material is seen in the device, there becomes an order, a manageable collection the the material. That is not to say that anything is fixed; the material is people, milling about the device. But there is only so far that the material can wander. Even in the most architecturally postmodern building, there is a limit to where people can go; so it is true for literature: even in the works that most challenge their form, there is a limit to the pushing.

Taken without the device, though, you just have a group of people milling around, not going anywhere, wandering in free space.

To push the image even further, it begs the question of whether you can have people without a space? If the work building here is to stand for a space that occupies, then clearly there would never be a time when people just stand in open space. Even in a field, there are boundaries to where that field starts and stops.

In essence, you can never have materials without a device. Sometimes the device is less present (people in a field); other times, the device has a more intrusive meaning that requires the reader to notice (people standing in the Guggenheim Art Museum). Regardless, the device, the place where the material is found, needs critical attention.

The immediate problem here, though is defining these devices. Since Structuralism, there has been a constant attack on definitional arguments, and some of this comes with good reason. A definition to tightly wound would limit the number of works, especially those that experiment with the form. In this post-structuralist, postmodernist, deconstructionist era, the definition needs to be able to stretch around those prime examples, as well as the more experimental version, but still say something that is worthwhile.

Here again, it might help to re-imagine the construction of genres. Often times people want to claim a genre exists separate of the work (see my note on Genre Criticism in Comic below), and this approach will always fall apart under scrutiny. Instead, the critic should build the genre from the work upwards. From the works, what family similarities can be found.

Here is where (Russian) Formalism becomes helpful as a means of talking about genre. The formalist were interested in finding the smallest bits of structural meaning (signs of meaning). These small parts could be collected as genre resemblances.

For example, with long and short form comics, what sort of similarities exist in the device? Clearly, short-form comics tends to be published in other mediums, such as a newspaper, comic anthology or magazine. Long-form comics are free-standing publications. That device difference is important to distinguish. If we understand everything to be a sign, the sign of the production are clearly different, and thus need examination. There are also narratological elements that are inherent in the devices, such as type of diegetic. Most comics tend to be heterodiegetic, in that the narrator is completely absent from the narrative. There are a few ways to bring the narrator into the narrative, but these methods require more space than the short-form comic is allowed. Because of this, the narrative type tends to be strictly heterodiegetic for short from comics, while long-form comics can move between hetero- and homodiegetic narrative instances. This is not to say that all long-form comic blend the diegetics, but long-form comics have the space to do so.

There is more to say here, but my mind is piling up with ideas, so I will stop now. More later.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

A Word on Writing

Approaching this dissertation was initially terrifying. Will described it as, simply, 100,000 words. Some perspective on that number, which made my head go numb: a double-space page typed in Times New Roman, size 12, with the margins at an inch will hold roughly 300 to 350 words. Even if I write only in small words, cramming 350 per page, this dissertation will be about 280 - 300 pages. To further put this into perspective: the longest sustained piece that I have written in my life was 22 pages, or roughly 5,000 to 7,000 words.

Having said that, I am not sure I have ever written 100,000 words in my life. Maybe if I compile all the short and long papers written between 1998 (the start of my undergraduate career) and now, I would be close, but not too much more.

As I sat in my room, mulling this over, I had to change my pants often, leaving the window open. Oh that, I say to my disgusted roommates, I don't know why my room smells like shit.

The sheer amount of time it was going to take to write more than I have ever written cumulatively was baffling. I honestly didn't think I would even know how to set on the path of writing anything approaching that long. Luckily, Will is a smarter man than I am.

He asked me first to read something about genre theory and just review it. This is a waste of my time, I thought. I should be reading all these great books about comics I have. I read the book (most of it) and wrote the review, noting the problems with genre theory. Will liked it, said my review voice was good (which I feel is slightly better than saying, you are really good at not presenting original ideas; a better backhanded compliment there is not), and sent me home to write a paper about how genre theory mixes with comics.

This paper I liked a little more as it got me to think about what I was doing, though my comic studies books were collecting dust, getting lonely. Nonetheless, 10 pages later, and it looked like I had the beginning of an intro, a tiny bit of introductory primordial ooze brewing something longer, and more interesting. Will and I discussed it; read: Will sat down with a chisel and a hammer, and began asking questions while whittling down what I considered to be an airtight argument. He again, sent me home to revise this, adding a little more to it, expanding sections, and trying to add something about narrative theory.

I have begun expanding some sections, and incredibly, I have written 15 pages and some change (4,600 words). This chapter, if it works, will nicely introduce all my key concepts, establish a baseline for my criticism, and the genres definitions I will use. All in four weeks. Finally, I got to use some of my cool comics criticism books, and feel a little better on that end.

So, in the manner of so many 80's sitcoms, cue the slow, tinkling piano music: today I learned a valuable lesson. Not just in humility, facing the fact that I don't know everything about everything; more than that I learned the value to slow, steady prewriting and continuous revision. See, before this, I was a single draft writer, never being able to put words on the page until I was certain I had read everything I needed to, had all my ideas, and could bang out 10 pages in a few hours. Now, I can see that I need to let my ideas incubate, that I need to write before I lose the good ideas I had early, and that I don't, in fact, know everything about everything.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Role of Genre in Comic Criticism

The first question one needs to deal with when writing about comics (especially for this long a venture) is that of genre. What, exactly, am I writing about?

Immediately, the mind wants to run to comic book, graphic novel, comic, comix, sequential narrative or visual story-telling. This is a difficult question to answer, mostly because the terms above are so heavily weighted. Graphic novel, for instance, suggests a certain gravitas about the work. One critic suggested that graphic novels are books written for adults by adults with adult themes that make use of the more expensive publishing resources available than the comic book counter part. This is problematic as many traditionally understood graphic novels were at one point comic books. The prime example being Watchmen. Now, go into almost any book store and there will be a stack of glossy covered Watchmen graphic novels, printed in explosive color (as explosive as a reproduction of 1987 comic color can be) and on expensive paper. The book has a lasting weight to it, one that belies that publication past of Watchmen, when Alan Moore released the story line in twelve separate comic books over the span of a year. The same can be said of Batman: the Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller, Berlin books 1 and 2 by Jason Lutes, La Perdida by Jessica Abel, Dogs and Water by Andres Nilsen or Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth (all deemed important graphic novels). But these are really collections of comic books. So, then, is the graphic novel just a collection of comic books? A novel in graphic stories?

Plus, terms like graphic novel (sequential narration or visual storytelling likewise fall into this problem) of making the work seem like more than it is. As if to say, "this is no mere comic; this is sequential narration." It would seem to me, as has been found before, that serious work can come from baser forms. One just needs to look at the scatological poems of Swift, highly anthologized but talking about fecal matter, nonetheless. Or Sir Philip Sidney's The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia. Here, a genre bending work, mixing prose romance, poetry and other forms, features cross-dressing and a plot straight out of Three's Company. Gothic novels were once considered trash literature, the Nora Roberts of post-Restoration England, and now are considered great works of literature (see: Caleb Williams by William Godwin or The Mysteries of Udolpho by Anne Radcliffe). To change the name to suggest a more serious tone would be disingenuous for the form that, at it's heart, may want to be comic.

Plus, the other terms deny the tradition that comes before the work. Comic books were just that: books of the comics (which, back in the day before newspapers trimmed out the fat to save a dollar, were given a lot more attention than they are relegated now). Graphic novels suggests that this form developed independently of the newspaper strip.

So, it would seem to me, the only authentic way to talk about this form is comic book (or, for brevity, comics). I tend to disregard the alternative spelling, comix because this stems from a desire to separate one variety from another. Again, this sort of distancing, while important in its time, is just not necessary. As I will argue later, regardless of content, the comic book creates a specific narratological condition; that is, whether it features men in capes and masks or crudely drawn characters dealing with their feelings, a comic book creates a certain reading environment that is unique to it's form, and which can be manipulated for interesting results.

But wait, the next question begs to be answered: is there a difference between 'alternative comics' and 'superhero comics'? Initially I believed so, but after reading Alastair Fowler's Kinds of Literature: an Introduction to the Theory of Genres and Modes it would seem to me that any further distinction is going to raise more problems than it solves.

The main question there is how does one define alternative comics? By it's name alone, it suggests that this comic is alternative to something. What is that something? Superhero comics? This would then give us two strangely disprortionate groups: those that deal with masked heroes and villans; and those that don't. This second group would contain such vastly different comics as Torso by Brian Michael Bendis and Blankets by Craig Thompson. Neither deals with superheroes, but one deals with a true crime narrative while the other is an autobiography of the author/writer's life. One is extremely violent with jaring images and tons of blank, empty space on the page. The other is sparsely shaded with gentle curving lines and a deep exploration of feelings. If we are going to split comics, then does grouping these together make any more sense?

By breaking down the genre further, it begs the question about those alternative comics that do feature superheroes (Wonder Wart-Hog for instances) or those superhero comics that look at things in a more 'alternative' light (Miller's run on Daredevil shares more in common with crime comics than it does with later Daredevil story lines). Where do these fall in? Is it only the visual images that we consider to make this break? Is it the style that the artist uses as well? There are a vast number of styles used in superhero comics from Tim Sale's strangely bright and oddly disprortionate work on Spider-Man: Blue to the dark, shadowy, and sketchy art of David Aja for The Immortal Iron-Fist to Adrian Alphona's very cartoony work on Brian K. Vaughan's Runaways (which, itself, pushes the limit of the genre). Plus, some comics that are considered 'alternative' are highly stylistic. And then what do you do with Lynda Barry?

Under examination, it would seem that, at least narratologically, this is an unnecessary dichotomy. These two seemingly disparate forms construct their narrative in familiar ways and rely on series of semiotic codes that are not that dissimilar.

So, in short: I think I'll call them comic books and leave it at that.

Monday, January 25, 2010

How to Read Superhero Comics and Why

Klock, Geoff. How to Read Superhero Comics and Why. New York: Continuum, 2006.

How to Read Superhero Comics and Why examines what Klock refers to as 'revisionary' superheroes. These are texts that offer the Bloomian 'strong reading' of the previous mess of continuity that precedes any given book. Texts like Miller's Batman: the Dark Knight Returns, and Batman: Year One as well as Moore's Killing Joke and Watchmen are seen as representative of these types of hero narratives.

For Klock, it is important that these texts examine and deal with the tradition of either the individual hero (see: Dark Knight Returns) or the entire spectrum of comic superhero history (see: Watchmen). More than just all the stories that precede the revisionary comic, these books need to also address what Reynold's refers to as the hierarchical continuity, or the way that the world has dealt with these comic books, such as Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent. Unlike the failed Crisis on Infinite Earths, these books will manage to address, deal with, and make some sense of the history so that the next wave of comics can move forward with a new sense of tradition.

Klock is very fastidious in his readings, and carefully examines each of the important comics (maybe to a fault: the first chapter of the book that examines The Dark Knight and Watchmen is almost half the book). His obsessively close readings aside, Klock's book is well written, engaging, and presents and interesting way to look at contemporary comic books. He makes a convincing argument for why these comic books are important for study and sets a standard that future comics can be weighed against.

This is going to be a useful book to reference for my project. Any time one talks about continuity, this book will need to be references, sign-posted or directly quoted.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Superheroes: a Modern Mythology

Reynolds, Richard. Superheroes: A Modern Mythology. Jackson: Univ. of Mississippi Press, 1992.

This book, while not especially well done, opens up the doors to talking about the structure of superhero stories. Reynolds essentially argues that there are central elements to a superhero story that all narratives must follow, and if they chose not to follow, they are drawing attention to that aspect of the narrative.

For instance, he argues that all superheroes must have an estranged relationship with their fathers. Superman never knew his parents, Batman's parents were killed in front of him, Spider Man was raised by his uncle who was killed by his own choices, the X-Men have troubled relationships with their parents. This makes sense. There are few superheroes that have any valid relationships with their fathers, or the mother, for that matter. Those that are fathers (Reed Richards, Wolverine, etc.) have issues with that role, torn between their duty as superhero and their duty as father.

While, like this, a lot of his observations make sense, and can be traced through the mass of the comic canon, Reynolds tends to pull up just short when examining these elements. For example, he goes on about the costume choices, noting that the costume is essentially a new identity for the hero. This new face (see Rorschach in Watchmen), then, provides the hero with the identity that often time lacks in the heroes real life. Reynolds makes this claim, more or less, and then fails to provide any tangible evidence. He makes a good point: the costume tradition is a language, the individual costume is the utterance; but to what end? When Spider Man switches from the blue and red Spidey Suit to the black suit, things change for him. The blue and red, much like the first hero, Superman, are the colors of good. Spider Man, regardless of the harm to him, or the opinion of the paper, does good in those colors. Under the symbiote Venom, he is much different. The lines between right and wrong are blurred, his actions take on a more selfish feel. The first clue that this is a new take on and old form is the costume.

There are hundreds of other examples: Rorschach from Watchmen, Batman and Superman (he does touch on this, but not hardly enough, since Batman goes through several costume changes, especially in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, one of Reynolds "important" texts), Elijah Snow from Planetary, Wonder Wart-Hog...the list goes on. Not to mention all that can be made from the women's costumes (again, he touches on this idea, but never enough support is supplied, nor does he fully explore the idea).

Like Scott McCloud and Understanding Comics, Reynolds gives us a base to build from. As far as this project is concerned, there is so much ground to be covered. A lot has happened since the publishing of the book, and more can be made of the foundation, sturdy but lacking, that Reynolds has laid.